University of Connecticut athletics, especially the men’s and women’s basketball teams, garner the most attention in the state on the sporting front, but the biggest event is undeniably the Travelers Championship.
From the humbling beginnings of a Greater Hartford Jaycees fundraiser in 1952 as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club, the tournament has grown into one of the best-attended events in the world that attracts solid player fields despite being the week after the U.S. Open. And, most importantly, it has raised more than $45.5 million for hundreds of local charities, including $22.5 million since the insurance magnet became title sponsor in 2007, capped by a record $2.2 million last year.
But while player recruitment is among the most vital lifelines for the success on the PGA Tour, the Travelers Championship is plenty fortunate to have a unique figure to help the cause. Andy Bessette, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Travelers, is the only PGA Tour title sponsor leader to travel to tournaments and walk the practice range trying to help land the best players and ask how things can be improved.
“Yes, that’s true,” Bessette said with a wry smile, “but I wish I had some company.”
Bessette’s “company” several times a year is tournament director Nathan Grube, who is more than delighted to have a major support system.
“It is an absolute team effort between tournament and title sponsor regarding player relationships that we have established over the last 16-plus years,” Grube said. “But we simply would not have the players we have each year without Andy.”
Bessette and Grube make trips that epitomize the Travelers exec’s guiding business principle.
“Every year our motto, and I’ve always had this motto throughout my whole life, is that the status quo is unacceptable,” Bessette said. “You have to always get better. If you’re not better tomorrow than you are today than you’re going backwards.”
The 67-year-old Bessette specializes in his credo while getting to know more and more players every year, starting in 2006, when he and Grube began meeting and building relationships with players, their families, caddies, media members and many others. Travelers, which has been a sponsor on some level since the inception of the tournament, became title sponsor after Buick ended its four-year association with the event.
“We talked to everybody,” Bessette said. “We asked (Fairfield native) J.J. Henry, who was the defending champion, and Bubba Watson, ‘What’s important to you guys? We want to have the best tournament on the PGA Tour.’ They were shocked we even asked the question. We asked (then-ESPN personality) Mike Tirico, ‘What do we have to do?’ And we continue to do that every year. A couple years ago I saw Ted Scott, who was Bubba’s caddie at the time, and I asked him, ‘What can we do to keep making this tournament better?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me? You already do everything.’
“We’ll never stop. We will always ask what can we do better, how can we be greater, how can we attract the best players in the world.”
Thanks to his dedication, diligence, leadership and success on multiple fronts, Bessette will be inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame at the Hartford Downtown Marriott on June 20, the start of tournament week at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. He will be joined by Wethersfield native Bruce Edwards, one of the leading PGA Tour caddies for more than three decades for Hall of Famers Tom Watson and 1995 Canon Greater Hartford Open champion Greg Norman before he died of ALS in 2004 at the age of 49.
Bessette said one of the things that his team has stressed is providing sponsors’ exemptions to future PGA Tour stars. Recent choices have been Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, while earlier exemptions were given to players such as Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson.
“It’s important to identify and include the next class of top young talent,” Bessette said. “There can be a loyalty that comes along with giving people opportunities in their careers. There are several examples of how guys remember the opportunity we gave them, and then they come back to play our event after they’ve won majors. We’ve helped them out, and we’ve gotten to know them as people.
“I think this is reflective of Travelers and how we care about people. We care about what they think and about bringing people together. People are more important than brick and mortar. We’ve worked really hard at Travelers to build something that is enticing to people because we want to attract the best young people to come work for us.
Harris English, who made a 16-foot birdie putt to defeat Kramer Hickock on a record eighth playoff hole last year, is expected to defend his title after being sidelined most of the year because of surgery on his right hip on Feb. 14. He suffered through some level of pain for more than 10 years dating to his college days at the University of Georgia that helped lead to falling to 373rd in the world rankings. But a victory in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January 2021 and then the Travelers Championship five months later vaulted English to 14th in the world and earned him a pick by U.S. captain Steve Stricker for his first Ryder Cup team that scored a record 19-9 victory over Europe.
Health permitting, English will face a star-studded field that had early commitments from No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, whose four victories this year included the Masters; No. 5 Justin Thomas, who defeated Will Zalatoris in a three-hole aggregate playoff to win the PGA Championship; No. 6 Patrick Cantlay, the PGA Tour Player of the Year and FedExCup winner in 2021; No. 8 Rory McIlroy, who finished second in the Masters and eighth in the PGA; No. 11 Xander Schauffele, the 2021 Olympic gold medalist; No. 13 Dustin Johnson, the 2020 Travelers champion; No. 14 Zalatoris, who finished second and fifth in the past two Masters; No. 17 Joaquin Niemann; No. 19 Abraham Ancer; No. 20 Brooks Koepka; and No. 36 Harold Varner III. Watson, a fan favorite and major tournament supporter, might not be able to try to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament titles (four) because of a torn meniscus in his knee that he revealed after he tied for 30th in the PGA.
Tournament tickets are on sale at TravelersChampionship.com, and gates will be open to all spectators starting June 22 for the Celebrity Pro-Am. To purchase tickets and for tournament updates, visit TravelersChampionship.com.